Economics, world-building, and the Merchant Princes/Empire Games series

by Charles Stross

Charlie Stross here. When I’m not writing for Wild Cards (which is, I regret to say, most of the time) I’m writing other stuff – mostly set in two continuities, which my publishers named the Laundry Files and the Merchant Princes. I say “continuities” rather than “universes” because they’re both multiverses, with a myriad of parallel universes in them that sometimes interact: and I’m blaming my publishers for the series titles because they got hung on me by editorial fiat, not authorial choice. But I digress, and in any case none of those editors are around for me to work with any more because both of these are million-word-plus series with ten and (soon) nine books respectively.

Today I want to talk about the Merchant Princes, and in particular the recent Empire Games trilogy, which is coming to an end with Invisible Sun, the ninth and final book, due out from Tor on September 30th.

(There are no jokers, aces, or poker-related metaphors in this essay. Indeed, there are no superheroes or supervillains in the series I’m talking about. If that’s why you’re here, read no further.)

So, what is the Merchant Princes, and what in particular is the Empire Games about?

Back in 2002 I coughed up a big fat book that at first sight looked like a portal fantasy: person from our universe gets hold of a magic locket that can transport her to a parallel, vaguely mediaeval-looking world, where it turns out she has rich (not to mention noble, and poisonous, backstabbing, and murderous) relatives. It was titled “The Family Trade”, and it was a deliberate bait-and-switch on my part: I had a whole bunch of pet peeves about high fantasy in general and portal fantasy in particular, and there was a science fictional mcguffin lurking in the wings. The book was basically an excuse to take a science fictional look at the economic and political consequences of travel between parallel universes in radically different stages of modernity and development.

Stuff happened, and to cut an 11 year story short, the big fat book was sausage-sliced into two slim books and marketed as fantasy, with an editorial veto on the SFnal aspects making an appearance before book 4, for contractual reasons too tedious to rehash here. Eventually I got to re-edit and re-package everything for the British release, which is why you can find three big fat omnibus books with different titles: if you want the preferred version, start with The Bloodline Feud and continue with The Traders War and The Revolution Trade.

Over the first series our heroine Miriam, an investigative journalist in her thirties, takes a header into a cesspool of murderous mediaeval politics, then stumbles into an I-can’t-believe-it’s-not-steampunk third time line in the middle of a pre-revolutionary fiscal crisis. In her attempts to develop a power base of her own she accidentally destablizes two time lines and draws one of them – the mediaeval-adjacent Gruinmarkt – to the attention of the US government in the form of the DEA and FBI, because if you can travel between parallel versions of North America carrying only whatever you can hold, it turns out you can make bank by smuggling high value contraband (getting drugs into the USA via one universe, and ferrying mail between kings at far faster than horseback pace in the other).

Escalation ensues, followed in short order by mushroom clouds, because the US government had failed to guard some backpack atomic demolition mines against people who could materialize inside buildings and the Clan of world-walkers’ more antedeluvian faction completely fail to understand how the US government works. This in turn leads to a climax involving the phrases “… President Rumsfeld’s America” and “safe for democracy” and a scene not unlike the end of the movie Dr Strangelove (lots and lots of mushroom clouds: fade to black).

However, all is not finished: Miriam has consolidated her power base and led the less dumb members of the squabbling Clan into exile in the world of the New British Empire that she stumbled across earlier in the infodump.

It’s a time line in which the industrial revolution hung fire for a century, following the French invasion of England in 1756 and the migration of the British Crown to New York the next year. It’s a time line that never had a French revolution (they looted England to pay the bills), nor a US War of Independence (do not go up against an English king with his back to the wall, he will mess you up), nor a Russian revolution (by 2002 the capital of the French empire is St. Petersburg). Democracy was suppressed globally by a surplus of tyrannical monarchies. But it’s not as backward as it appeared at first glance: they’ve got biplanes and fast locomotives and in military compounds there are natural philosophers experimenting with corpuscular disintegration (that’d be atomic power) and rocketry.

Due to the ongoing war between the New British and French empires, the British empire is running headlong into a fiscal crisis. Miriam, meanwhile, didn’t realize at first that her buyer for the contraband gold bullion she was smuggling was the quartermaster for the Radical underground in Boston. Who could possibly have foreseen that smuggling high-value contraband might be bad news for the authorities in every destination time-line? Revolution breaks out – the ideological rallying cry for this one being “democracy!” – and Miriam negotiates a deal with the Radical Party leadership: the Clan survivors will provide them with smuggled science and technology imported from our universe in return for sanctuary in an Area 51/alien survivors from a crashed UFO setup.

17 years pass … or in the real world, four years while Charlie’s editor waits for him to recover from burnout (hey, the first series was 40,000 words longer than “War and Peace”!) and take the bait for what was originally called “Merchant Princes: The Next Generation” and surfaced as a trilogy, consisting of Empire GamesDark State, and Invisible Sun.

So, something I learned the hard way is that if you start a long-term project, a decade down the line you will not be the same person who set off on that journey. Your outlook and interests will evolve: it’s an inevitable part of ageing.

The original Merchant Princes series started out as lightweight adventure/portal fantasy with a chewy SFnal undercurrent, but took a left turn into something much darker as the story began to recomplicate and I explored implications I hadn’t originally thought of. It turns out that if you take a 30-something tech sector journalist and dump her into a parallel universe where she’s got a useful hereditable talent that requires some degree of inbreedin to conserve, she’s not going to be keen on accepting her role as chattel. The cognitive toolset she’s got is all about disruption and marketplaces – things that don’t exist in the Gruinmarkt, where her relatives rule the roost but are stuck in what economists call a development trap: they’re able to buy imported luxuries like soft toilet paper from our world, but can’t figure out how to modernize their society and build a TP factory of their own, to use a metaphor.

What, I wondered, would happen if Miriam (or her descendants) found themselves a time line poised for rapid advancement, and gained the ear of a post-monarchical governing bureaucracy? Give them a generation to get traction, with the urgency of a war footing behind their proposals, and things are going to get interesting. Give the newly empowered People’s Radical Democratic Party a set of crib notes of revolutions of our universe and how they failed and things are going to get even more interesting. At least until the world-hopping reconnaissance drones from the US Air Force appear overhead and are shot down by nuclear-tipped surface to air missiles. At which point two justifiably-paranoid nuclear-armed North American superpowers in different time lines bump up against each other in the dark, and things get positively exciting in the most unpleasant sense of the word.

Especially once both superpowers’ R&D labs start trying to work out how world-walking works, and where the ability comes from, what other worlds are out there, what the possible threat surface of a multiverse looks like, and whether humanity might in fact not be alone …

Empire Games starts in a very different 2020 to ours: no COVID19 pandemic, but instead a sprawling security bureacracy dedicated to preventing the United States from ever again being attacked by a paratime state level actor. A young woman called Rita Douglas who is, unbeknown to herself, related to the Clan of world walkers, finds herself scooped up and conscripted into a shadowy Unit within Homeland Security that intends to turn her into a world-walking spy, a human intelligence asset. She aces all the tests, and for good reason: she was raised by a feral Stasi spymaster, a fossilized relic of Communist East Germany, stranded in America after the end of the Cold War. The government needs a paratime spy because the New American Commonwealth – as Miriam’s post-revolutionary republic calls itself – is advanced enough to identify and shoot down drones: their true capabilities are unknown. But there’s a deeper game in progress, a game of destabilization targeting people close to the head of state of the rival power. Who, we discover in Dark State, are themselves running a destabilization op against their proximate rival, the French Empire. And what neither rival recognizes is that there’s a third power out there, one that’s not remotely human and that is working towards the extermination of all human time lines in Invisible Sun.

But what about that development trap business, the nerdish jackboot of economic world-building stamping all over the unprotected face of a vulnerable portal fantasy setting?

It turns out we’ve got plenty of examples of countries in our own world that failed to develop rapidly … and many counter-examples as well. Take Japan. Prior to 1853, when the US Navy steamed into Edo bay and forcibly re-opened foreign trade (which had been suspended for two centuries), Japan had been largely bypassed by the modern age. But fifty years later, Japan won a war against a front-rank European power – the Russian Empire – inflicting the most one-sided naval defeat in over a century on the Russian fleet at the Battle of Tsushima. Or take the two Koreas, North and South. Both were left devastated by the Korean War of 1949-53, then ruled by autocratic dictatorships under the aegis of rival superpowers: as of the mid-1970s they were approximately even (and backwards by regional standards). But then South Korea began to shift, with a gradual reduction in authoritarian control and a massive economic flowering that saw its per-capita GDP rise to eclipse that of Japan by the early 1990s. (North Korea is the control group in this dramatic experiment in rapid economic development.)

The New British Empire was not so much steampunk as marooned in the mid to late 1930s – complete with great depression – when Miriam first stumbled into their Boston in 2003. The future is already here, it’s just unevenly distributed, as William Gibson famously noted: Miriam saw steam cars (a feature of our own world into the 1920s) and airships, but didn’t observe the military experimenting with nuclear weapons out of public view. With nearly 20 years of illicit technology transfer and a command economy behind her, she’s ramped the New American Commonwealth, its successor state, up to the 1960s or even early 1970s in some sectors: they have satellites, missiles, jet airliners, and early computers. They’ve also advanced beyond anything the United States has achieved in one particular area – nuclear space propulsion, a road not taken in our own time line (or one that diverged from our own as recently as the 1990s). They’re not so good at consumer goods and luxury items (there’s something of a Soviet feel about the Commonwealth’s forced development, guns-before-butter, policies), but then, they’re locked in an existential struggle for survival against a Bourbon monarchy with nukes of its own.

Now I look back at what I’ve written so far and I realize I’ve almost entirely left out the character development, interpersonal relationships, conflicts, love affairs, skullduggery and invective that powers any human story! And there’s a lot of it. (There are so many people involved, in fact, that at one point I had to use nuclear weapons to thin the herd of protagonists.) There’s also a spy thriller in here, and a heart-warming family reunion and a very unusual mother-daughter relationship. Also alien invaders, and finally a nuclear-powered space dreadnought, because every series that starts out as portal fantasy and mutates into a technothriller then a spy story needs to end with a space operatic aria.

If this has piqued your interest you can either start at the beginning with The Bloodline Feud (a rewrite of the first two books in the original series), or dive into the new trilogy without further do, by starting with Empire Games, knowing it’s going to be complete this September. Parallel universes, economic development traps and how to avoid them, spies, merchants, and adventurers, and finally an alien invasion: I think that’s all I came here to say!